Inside the race to close the digital divide in South Carolina

Pee Dee

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — If you frequent Facebook or maybe have to hop on Zoom calls for your job, the internet is likely a big part of your day.

But some places right in the area still don’t have access to a high speed connection.

Rebecca McArthur, who owns McArthur Farms in Marlboro County, connected to broadband internet at her business for the first time in December.

McArthur said she used to lose a lot of money from lost transactions on her point of sale system due to the poor connection. She used to have sit at a McDonald’s for wifi to load transactions, and wait for hours to upload social media posts.

“We have got to stay connected,” McArthur said. “I like staying in the country, but I don’t like to feel left behind.”

Other areas of rural South Carolina are still behind, though.

Many areas in the Pee Dee lack a connection to high speed internet. The state recently formed a broadband office to address the need.

“Small towns have fallen into decay because they don’t have the digital infrastructure necessary to maintain a modern economy,” Tom Allen with the Office of Regulatory Staff said. “So one thing we have done is we applied for a federal grant, in which we, and Charter is a part of this, we will try to light up small town South Carolina.”

Spectrum said it plans to invest millions to connect thousands of households in the Pee Dee, in particular in Dillon.

Sarah Bonnoit with Horry Telephone Cooperative said it’s an intensive process.

“Broadband is infrastructure,” Bonnoit said. “I think there’s a misconception that internet service providers just decide we want to turn on a switch for this area and that’s not how that works. It is infrastructure. It’s very similar to roads. It is very capital and time intensive.”

HTC is working to build more of that broadband infrastructure in Marion and Georgetown Counties right now. Thanks to pandemic-related funding sources, nearly 5,000 more households will have a connection within a two year period.

“For a community being able to say they have access to fiber infrastructure and fiber to the home is a tremendous asset,” Bonnoit said. “Whether it’s on the economic development standpoint, of helping to recruit new industry into town.”

The state also hopes to boost rural economies with a proposal to invest in water systems.

Still, many rural communities face other needs outside infrastructure. Dillon County leaders say the area could use more housing, while Nichols looks for things like a doctor’s office and bank.

The South Carolina Hospital Association says a lack of access to hospitals in some rural areas is an issue. Some counties, such as Marlboro, have lost their hospitals over the years. The association said that can have a negative impact on an area’s overall health and economy.

“Hospitals are often your largest employer, they do a great deal of business with the surrounding businesses,” Vice President, Strategic Marketing & Communications for the SCHA Schipp Ames.

Ames said virtual care has the potential to close additional gaps, but that is dependent on a key piece of infrastructure.

“Broadband has become that standard price of infrastructure, that’s what takes to be in that population that achieves better health outcomes.”

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